The proposed changes to British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve will have an impact on farmland across British Columbia, but little has been said about the potential impact on the province’s towns and cities. The ALR has acted as a check on sprawl in many regions, particularly in the Lower Mainland; the Vancouver region has become known for town centres that balance density and livability. By creating a future for farmland against the onslaught of rapidly spreading suburbs and by halting unbounded sprawl, the stage was set for a city that had to treat development more thoughtfully. Though the proposed changes to the ALR are most dramatic in rural regions of the province, the introduction of new performance standards and reporting requirements for the Agricultural Land Commission could signal an acceleration of exclusion approvals, even in Zone One, and an increase in costly sprawl.
Bounded by ocean, rugged mountains that stretch for hundreds of kilometres, and an international border, the Vancouver region has never had much space to work with. By the 1970s, suburban sprawl was rapidly chewing through the region’s farmland. Realizing that something had to be done to protect farmland, the government placed 1,500 square kilometres of this limited land base into the new Agricultural Land Reserve, greatly constraining how Vancouver could spread. The ALR was a sea of green surrounding existing islands of settlement, and forced Vancouver to look inward and find new and increasingly creative solutions as to how to grow and even how to understand itself as an urban place, a centre increasingly defined by its edge.
The Agricultural Land Reserve has been extremely effective at protecting our region’s farmland; land lost to development fell by nearly 90 percent, and secure in their tenure, farmers developed an intensive agricultural landscape that currently produces 4.5 percent of Canada’s farm income on 0.2 percent of the country’s farmland. The edges of this productive land held in our growing city; we built up as opposed to out. Defined by the clear and maintained rural edge, the development and consolidation of this city’s livable centres was striking, and helped define our signature style of development, Vancouverism.
Vancouverism is a system that creates dense urban form that is justified through a rational of urban livability. Beyond signature towers, this rationale for density relies on active and intensified urban areas that have a mix of uses, are amenity rich, and are connected with a robust transit system. This density was not just expressed in localized built form, but was planned and produced at a regional level. Following on the heels of the ALR, the Livable Region Strategic Plan presented a future for this region that is only now becoming complete; the plan’s series of “metro” town centres, linked by rapid transit, connected Vancouver’s core to the developing cores of Coquitlam and Surrey. The region’s rich farmland in effect saved the region from sprawl.
The regional plan reduced the pressures for a citywide freeway system, and early projects such as the SeaBus to North Vancouver staved off massive bridge and tunnel construction by formalizing and celebrating a rapid transit connection. SkyTrain, part urban rail and part interurban transit, provided a fast link between growing centres. Experimental neighbourhoods such as Granville Island and False Creek South became a vanguard of livable density. In the same years, plans were presented to make a citylike core around a yet to be built “metro” town centre in Burnaby. Today in Richmond, transit-oriented towers and apartments redeveloped on former single family lots are connected to the relatively new Canada Line, and overlook the farmland that an otherwise unconstrained and non-dense development would have overtaken.
As the Agricultural Land Reserve enters its fifth decade, two starkly different futures for our region are emerging. The allowance for exclusions from the land reserve has decreased the original agricultural land base by over 10 percent in the region, but development pressures are now sharply accelerating. The Agricultural Land Commission currently has roughly 900 exclusion requests on its plate, and speculation is driving up the cost of farmland across the region. The proposed changes to the ALR in our region might promise the status quo, but that simply isn’t good enough; the only outcome of a weakened ALR is sprawl, from ocean to mountain, a tangled mass of pavement and traffic. In the developing areas of the province now surrounded by Zone Two ALR, sprawl is inevitable.
Metro Vancouver was able to balance and consolidate the two excellencies of “town” and “country”. A strengthened Agricultural Land Reserve that continues to shape our city region far out into the Fraser Valley has the potential to focus development on core areas such as the existing historic downtowns of Chilliwack and Mission, as it did for the inner region. Such hubs could be easily connected by rapid transit to Metro proper and to each other. For this optimistic future to come to pass, well designed communities and agricultural protection must not be independent. To forget the symbiotic relationship of the edge and centre is to risk our livable region.